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House autonomous vehicle bill is surprising, though many things still up in the air, transportation policy scholar says

Monday, September 11, 2017

LAWRENCE — The U.S. House last week passed a bipartisan bill aiming to allow automakers and tech companies to test as many as 100,000 autonomous vehicles annually.

While its prospects are uncertain in the Senate, the bill is a notable development in the world of autonomous vehicles, says a University of Kansas researcher who studies transportation policy, including issues surrounding driverless vehicles.

"It is a surprise in the sense that Congress is so divisive and partisan right now amid an even more hostile political climate. We have a Congress that has made little progress advancing high-profile legislation, and yet there was near unanimous agreement across the aisle for this bill," said Bradley Lane, assistant professor in the KU School of Public Affairs & Administration.

Lane can discuss developments surrounding the bill and how governments will grapple with policies surrounding regulation of autonomous vehicles. He is currently working on a study of the sustainability effects of autonomous vehicle technology and a pilot study with a colleague at the University of Nevada on connected and autonomous vehicles. He can discuss safety and security regulation policies and other issues related to driverless vehicles.

His broad research profile focuses on sustainability, travel behavior, policy and planning issues in urban transportation. He has authored or co-authored studies on government promotion of electric vehicles, how gasoline prices influence public transit and purchasing trends of plug-in electric vehicles, among other topics.

Q: What are key things to watch as the House bill potentially moves forward?

Lane: To me, the key tension in the bill – and the thing to watch for – will be this notion of the role of safety in legislation and regulation of autonomous vehicles going forward. The bill exempts a fairly significant number of vehicles – up to 100,000 per year for each automaker within three years – from existing safety features.

It appears the intent of the bill is to recognize that the mechanics of vehicle safety for autonomous vehicles are simply different and more complex than those for conventional vehicles. It also seeks to give automakers the space needed to develop the safety features of a technology that, for all its public attention, is still quite a way from mass consumer availability.

Fully autonomous vehicles are currently illegal on public roads. One of the ultimate purposes of autonomous vehicles is to improve vehicle safety. Road deaths, after years of decline, are rising again, and the key culprit appears to be human error. It appears this legislation is trying to facilitate the bridging of that gap between the present and the future.

Q: What issues could still be up in the air?

Lane: Something that is unclear to me is the definition of self-driving cars being used. News coverage appears to focus on fully autonomous vehicles, but there are many layers – five, according to most in the transportation industry – of vehicle automation. It is unclear to me how this bill and existing regulation interacts with the reality of the different stages of vehicle automation.

Lastly, it's also important to keep in mind this is just the House bill. The Senate has a long history of reigning in legislation coming out of the House, in any policy area. It will be interesting to see what changes are made before this becomes law.


Ruth DeWitt, Communications Manager
KU School of Public Affairs and Administration
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